Disclaimer: While I am a law student, I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice.
Part of my own legal education has been the study of Professional Sports law (in the United States), so I decided to do a quick comparison of regulations and punishments between some of the major US sports organizations to Riot’s eSports organization.
In this article, I’m talking about professional League players in the eSports setting; not your everyday bronze scrub.
The Original Setup – Rules and Regulations in Physical Pro Sports
In the four major US sports (NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB), the rules and regulations are set up sort of like a corporate hierarchy: you have the Commissioner at the very top, who controls most aspects of the game itself – the schedule, regulating officials, league-based discipline, etc. The Commissioner’s power over the league and its teams is set forth through a League Constitution (similar to a corporation’s bylaws). However, these constitutions don’t directly dictate the relationship between teams and players – those are set up contractually.
In each of these sports league constitutions there is a clause called the “best interests of the game” clause. It basically gives the Commissioner the authority to do just about anything as long as the act is in the best interests of the game as a whole.
A New System? – Rules and Regulations in League of Legends
Unfortunately, Riot’s eSports regulation setup isn’t publicly available, and most professional player contracts have a non-disclosure clause. With the lack of available information, the best we can do is apply current sports law concepts and see how they fit onto Riot’s eSports infrastructure.
In League of Legends, the setup is very different from the club/league “franchise” arrangement most other professional sports use, but the outcome is essentially the same. Riot effectively takes on the role of “league commissioner,” exerting direct control over both the game and the teams simultaneously.
The biggest difference is that instead of holding “commissioner” power through a league constitution, Riot seems to be given that power contractually – teams sign lengthy contracts that give unilateral control over League events to Riot – which seems pretty obvious. If you want to play their game in their tournaments, you have to agree to play by their rules.
Ok, so instead of becoming a commissioner through a “league constitution,” Riot becomes a commissioner through individual contracts. Is that really any different? The answer is yes.
The Differences – Advantages and Disadvantages of Riot’s eSports Setup
Setting up commissioner power as contractual agreements has advantages and disadvantages. It’s advantageous to Riot on several practical levels:
First, Riot maintains a direct relationship with the players – as opposed to professional sports law, where only teams and owners are parties to the bylaws, and players have no direct relationship with the Commissioner. Second, individual contracts allow a large degree of flexibility – great for different teams in differing circumstances (e.g. foreign teams). Finally, Riot could distance themselves from principal-agent situations with teams/players, which has several benefits – not the least of which involves avoiding antitrust violations.
However, there are some legal disadvantages to having a contractual setup rather than a series of league bylaws. The first is that contractual damages are very limited. Harsh penalties designed to deter behavior don’t fly in contract law – if actual damages can’t be proven with certainty, Riot has no case. This poses a problem, for instance, with cheating – you want to punish cheaters even if cheating didn’t actually help them win, but a court will require you to prove that damage was done. This may explain why Riot caught several teams screenwatching last year, but only chose to penalize when they were certain it had an impact on the game.
A related disadvantage is the lack of a “best interests of the game” clause. In professional sports law, such clauses are kept extremely ambiguous on purpose, to meet whatever new situations can come up (e.g., dog fighting, gang-related signs… etc). It also allows for flexible discipline measures to be taken – commissioners can fine teams, revoke draft picks, or even force team ownership transfers outright.
But the ambiguity that makes the clause so valuable in a bylaw is also what makes the clause detrimental to contract law. Ambiguous words and phrases are difficult to enforce because it’s hard to tell if both parties really agreed to the same thing. (e.g., what exactly constitutes a “performance enhancing” drug? Is it limited to anabolic steroids? What about prescription medications such as Adderall? Energy drinks? Caffeine?). In some situations, courts can strike entire clauses from a contract for being too ambiguous – a pretty severe disadvantage.
Will we ever see any of these issues get raised in court? Probably not, as most teams and players are not in any position to negotiate or test any of the terms in their contracts. Their bargaining power is effectively nullified by the fact that Riot has a stranglehold on League of Legends – it is, after all, their game.
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